Solar Charging Stuff for RVs We Should Have Known

winter tilt position on our roof

winter tilt position on our roof

You might be interested in buying into the quietest electrical power generator? There is no fuel to keep up with and pour (and spill). Maintenance is very minimal for the panels, just wiping them off, ensuring they are well-attached to the RV, and keeping the wires secure and free of chafing. You should already be tending your batteries to keep them clean, topped off with distilled water (unless yours are “no-maintenance”), and keeping the connections tightened, no matter whether you have solar panels or not.

pair of 125 watt solar panels

pair of 125 watt solar panels

Solar makes sense for more RVers than just full-timers. These roof-top battery chargers allow us to go most of the year without ever needing to use the trailer’s electrically-powered battery charger. A small solar charging system can tend your batteries for your RV without any shore power connections. A larger system can keep up with all your daily uses for your RV’s batteries including fans, lights, water pump, and even ham radio operations.

from http://www.solarchoice.net.au/blog/wp-content/uploads/Module-cost-vs-BoS-costs-on-average.jpgStill higher end systems can also provide all the DC, or 12 volt power, as well as your 110 volt power for your RV. You could run your microwave, hair dryer, coffee pot and more from your batteries, all recharged with solar panels. Beware though, there are costs to all this. The trick, as with so many things, is to strike your optimal balance between cost and benefit.

Before you consider buying anything, study up a bit.  Don’t buy anything yet!  The two links that follow this paragraph provide helpful information about solar panels, controllers, what sizes are useful.  

Look at http://www.windsun.com, halfway down the page. They have “Solar Information Pages” with good learning info about solar.

Look at amsolar’s rv_solar_education pages. They provide good learning info.

Before you buy anything, read this short post we wrote about installing a meter to measure and record battery usage and capacity.  We highly recommend anyone consider carefully this tool before spending a dime on changing the size of their battery bank or adding more solar panels.  If you don’t know what size shoe you wear, why would you order a pair of shoes without being fitted first?<

Trimetric Meter by our fridge

Trimetric Meter by our fridge

The meter we installed in October 2013, in case you did NOT read the article I just told you to, is a Trimetric 2025RV.  It costs $180 from BestConverter, including the required shunt. You can see it through this link. We bought the approx 25′ of control wire from a really neat store in Boise Idaho, they spooled off 25′ of Cat5 for about $5.  We had the battery cables we needed to connect the meter in-line with our batteries and the house.

No one told us to have a cooling off period or to learn more.  Well, we learned more anyhow — we studied our fannies off learning about so many sizes and brands of solar.  Solar was smoking hot in 2007, the dealers could not keep good panels on the shelves.  Same with charge controllers (you already learned in the first two links way above, these are very important), they were often unavailable.

We somehow stumbled upon a very nicely documented description of installing solar panels ON OUR VERY RV — Yep, Don had installed a pair of solar panels atop a 2005 Airstream CCD 25 trailer.  Wow, we’re supposed to do this.  We tried to be just like Don.  We ordered the same kit from the same place, put our panels in the same spot, installed our charge controller in the same blank panel.  This is too easy!

Well, it wasn’t quite so simple.  You see, you have some days luckier than others.  The day we installed our solar panels was a less lucky day.  Jim drilled holes in our trailer’s roof. Eight 5/16″ holes, four feet for each panel, didn’t take very long to make.  The panels attached easily to the roof with the supplied mounting hardware and . . .

Inside the trailer the 12 volt lights didn’t work anymore.  Oh, it’s probably something really simple.  No. A wire must be cut somewhere from all that drilling.

see the patched hand-hole from patching wires?

see the patched hand-hole from patching wires?

After much snarling and searching and spending sleepless nights, Jim found the one hole in which the drill bit had touched two wires.  The insulation stripped off, the two wires were crossed and shorting out.  Finding the problem was the hard part.  Jim spent only an hour or two fixing these two wires and our solar charging system has worked fantastically since.

Here is one more link, to a seller with very nearly the same system we bought over five years ago. This is our favorite system, the 270 watt one, close to what we have but seems a bit sharper and is certainly much less expensive than what we paid then. The technology has improved in five years, although we’ve read the manufacturing may be lower quality. The article we read from NY Times reported a case where the failure rate for newly manufactured panels has risen from below 5% to between 13 and 22%.

P1120863We are now more advanced users due to lots of practice — full-time with the solar charging system for over five years.  All the components are original, but we’ve enlarged the battery storage to four 6v golf cart batteries.  Jim can now rest assured of having full power for his ham radios before sun-up tomorrow, every day. Debbie rests confident Jim will not once ask her, “are you still using that light or may I turn it off for you?”  We have lots of battery capacity.

arm uni go powerJim installed a neat tilting system for our solar panels. Our panels can be up to 30% more effective by tilting than if lying flat on our roof.  This is especially useful in winter months, when the sun is much lower angle in the sky and solar gain is much harder to obtain.  

both panels now tilt at once

both panels now tilt at once

Our panels, tilted up, are ready to get all the solar they can in winter.  At least each quarter-year, Jim changes the amount of tilt to correspond with the sun’s higher, or lower, path across the sky.  And no, we do not travel down the road with the solar panels tilted up. The panels lie flat on the roof for travel.  Jim can easily and quickly tilt the panels, standing on a ladder leaned against the trailer’s side.

See you down the road!

Jim and Debbie

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©2007-2013 Dreamstreamr

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3 responses to “Solar Charging Stuff for RVs We Should Have Known

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this information. Installing a solar system is on my renovation wish list for my 1970 Sovereign. There is so much information out there on the topic that it can be a little overwhelming. I appreciate you sharing what has actually worked well from your personal experience.

    • You are very welcome. I’m inclined to do a follow-up post on nuts and bolts of the installation. The solar charging post was long enough without getting into this important segment. Here’s the essence of it though — we no longer select well nuts (threaded inserts with rubber outer sleeve) for mounting things on the roof. We’ve found we obtain a strong mechanical attachment using appropriately-sized stainless sheet metal screws into under-sized starter holes.

      If I was drilling again for well nuts I would be very sure to clamp a stop collar on the drill bit, and back the stop collar with an appropriate length of pvc tubing or pvc pipe to prevent the stop collar slipping up on the bit.

      Knowing nothing else, I think the kits with approx 250 watts (a pair of 125 watt panels) would likely be a darned good starter for your 1970 Sovereign. If you have extra money up-front, or can apply for energy grant dollars assistance, consider including a good quality 1,000 or 1,500 watt inverter, a panel tilt kit, and upgrading your batteries. I failed to either, I believe they would have qualified for the energy grant assistance at the time, and I could have saved on purchase cost.

      On the other hand, installing a kit with just two 125-watt panels, the hook-up wiring, and a charge controller allowed us to finely hone our system to our wants. We held off adding any inverter until six months ago when we finally bought an inexpensive “beginners” inverter, a 410 watt one. Trying it out, learning how we would use it, considering going to a larger one — a 1,500 watt inverter would pull the microwave while also providing for other circuits loads. After adding the Trimetric 2025RV meter last Fall we’re nearly certain we could have made out okay with just two new 6v golf cart batteries instead of four. Could have saved over $500 even with the cost of the Trimetric. Learning, learning.

      More info on demand — feel free to ask anytime. We’ll happily differentiate between our experience and our opinions, too.

      Jim
      Huron SD until July 5

      • Thank you so much again, and yes a post on the nuts and bolts of installation would be fantastic. I am going to save your information, and you will likely hear from me again with more questions when I actually get ready to do this. You’ve given me some great tips on where to start researching & pricing out things so I know how much I will need to save for this project. I hadn’t thought about an energy grant for assistance. I’m going to look into that as well.

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